Smokefree Metro Manila

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Smoke-free Metro ManilaSmoke-free Metro Manila

 

     Why did this health news rank so high in HEALTHbeat’s countdown? Well, this is one of the very few instances when tobacco control advocates took the offensive against the rich and mighty tobacco industry that for so long has considered the Philippines as their “Disneyland” because of the lax and lenient tobacco regulation laws and policies.

     On May 29, a few days before the World No Tobacco Day (May 31), the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) announced to the media its smoking ban in public places. Deputized “environmental enforcers” were deployed in teams to apprehend persons caught smoking primarily in major thoroughfares (loading bays, footbridges, stairwells of train stations),  public utility vehicles and land transportation terminals in coordination with the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board. Meanwhile, the LGUs are responsible for city roads and establishments in their jurisdiction and the Civil Service Commission is responsible for government vehicles and offices.  The penalty ranges from P500 up to P1,000 for the first offense, or 8-hour community service.

     As soon as it was announced, ABS CBN TV Patrol put on a text poll and showed that 91% of the viewing public agreed with the new MMDA policy. This is evident of a silent majority of the population who are against tobacco use, especially in public places.

     After a month-long information drive, the new policy took effect on July 1. Barely a week after the MMDA fully implemented its smoking ban policy, Chris Nelson, the managing director of PMFTC - a venture between Philip Morris and Fortune Tobacco - said in a Malaya news report on July 7, the PMFTC is prepared to take action against the MMDA on the regularity of the issuance. He was even quoted as saying, “It may not even be us, it could be a smoker who may take action.”

     And like a Nicodemus prophesy, two smokers have really taken the MMDA to court after they were fined for smoking in public. On July 26, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported security guards Antony Clemente and Vrianne Lamsen, in their petition, asked the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court to stop the MMDA from implementing a ban on smoking in public places in Metro Manila. The two were said to have been  apprehended by an MMDA enforcer after they were caught smoking on the sidewalk on EDSA, near Farmers Market in Cubao, Quezon City, on July 6.

     Lawyer Jesus de la Paz told the Inquirer that the area where the two security guards were caught smoking was not covered by Republic Act (RA) No. 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003. He was further quoted as saying, “We also contest the authority of the MMDA to collect fees and impose punishment on supposed violators.” In several interviews, de la Paz was also quoted to exclaim that the smoking ban of MMDA is unconstitutional.

     On August 2, a group of lawyers supportive of the MMDA ban questioned de a Paz’s motives for going to court in a bid to halt the agency’s efforts. Health Justice, a non-profit public health law think tank that has helped gain popularity for various tobacco control measures, issued a press release that claimed that one of the clients of de la Paz’s law firm (Gonzales Batiller David Leabres & Reyes) is Philip Morris Manufacturing Inc., as listed on the company’s website. Eventually, ABS CBN news report showed that Philip Morris was already removed from the list of clients.

     On August 15, Judge Carlos Valenzuela of Branch 213 of the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court (RTC) issued the temporary restraining order (TRO) for 20 days ruling in favor of the two complainants. They were required to post the P100,000 bond, which would cover the claims of damages if the court’s final decision went in MMDA’s favor. The following day, one of the complainants of the smoking ban, identified as Antony Clemente, claimed in an interview with ABS-CBN News that he did not pay for the required bond to file the case. He said, “Hindi ko naman siya kayang bayaran kasi minimum wage lang naman ako. Bale nagkakaugnayan lang d’yan, attorney lang ho. ‘Yung Philip Morris ang naaapektuhan kasi. Dahil sa pinapatupad na paghuhuli na ‘yan, syempre ‘yung negosyo, naaapektuhan.”

     The supposed admission sparked an outrage among tobacco control advocates.  Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan, former health secretary, expressed his dismay in a press statement, “The tobacco industry is obviously pulling out all stops to block laudable public health measures like the MMDA’s enforcement campaign Cases like these show how the tobacco industry belittles the competence of medical authorities in guarding the health of our citizens. In planting a witness against MMDA, they undermine the authority of the government to take care of its people.”

     MMMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino said, “The complainants were planted and their arrest by our environmental enforcers was planned that’s why we can say that some businessmen were interested in this case.” The PMFTC, for its part, issued a statement denying the allegations that the company was behind the complaint. Meanwhile, the petitioners’ lawyer dismissed the news interview of Clemente as “unreliable,” claiming his client was misquoted.

     On August 19, tobacco farmers from La Union were reported to have helped pay for the P100,000 bond required by the  court. This signalled the start of a 20-day TRO on the enforcement of the no-smoking policy on sidewalks and public thoroughfares in Metro Manila.

     After this temporary setback, the MMDA together with the local government units still pursued the enforcement of its smoking ban in areas covered by Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003.

     Meanwhile, the Department of Health issued a press statement that supported MMDA’s smokefree program and said, “In its pursuit of Kalusugan Pangkalahatan, the DOH stresses that the right of a smoker ceases when he or she violates the rights of others to protect their own health.”

     For the first three months of implementation, the MMDA recorded a total of 8,772 smokers apprehended. In September, Tolentino was awarded by the Philippine Medical Association the title as a champion in his efforts in promoting and pursuing a Smokefree Metro Manila.

     But the story does not end there. The tobacco industry does not get tired of putting a popular man and his steadfast anti-smoking efforts down. On October 25, a writ of preliminary injunction was issued by Mandaluyong RTC by the same judge, Valenzuela, ordering MMDA to refrain from apprehending violators of the RA 9211 in places not within the law’s coverage. The law also requires the establishment of smoking areas in places not covered by the absolute prohibition. This is bad news for the majority of the population who do not smoke but are exposing themselves to the hazards of secondhand smoke.

     Just to comply with the law, MMDA placed cigarette bins along major thoroughfares where smokers can smoke and throw away their cigarette butts. Tolentino said they would take the RTC injunction to the Court of Appeals. And the wheels of justice still grind for MMDA as well as for several anti-tobacco advocates who are supporting the Authority.

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